Former executive chef at Rocco Bar & Grill, David Aspin has been charged with turning Linthwaite House hotel into a world-class restaurant. He tells Eatnorth how he hopes to rise to the challenge.
“I just want a decent plate,” says David Aspin, the newly appointed head chef at Linthwaite House, Lake District. “Every chef needs a decent plate. I can’t serve food without a decent plate.”
Clutching a bunch of ‘in season’ artichokes in the current, tired kitchen, he is clearly frustrated: “It’s not my food,” he says. “That makes it difficult at the minute.”
It’s only been two months since Aspin was appointed as head chef at the hotel, which overlooks Lake Windermere.
The former country house, built in 1901, has been run as a family-owned, four Red-AA-star, 30-bedroom hotel for the last 25 years. In April 2016 it was bought by Analjit Singh, one of India’s richest men and founder of the Leeu Collection.
The collection centres on Franschhoek, about an hour out of Cape Town, South Africa, and includes a range of dining and hospitality ventures including Leeu House, Leeu Estates, Le Quartier Français, Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines and Tuk Tuk Microbrewery. Linthwaite House is Singh’s first foray into building an international brand. A planning application has been submitted to turn the hotel into a luxurious property, complete with a spa, inspiring art collections, manicured and detailed landscaping, world-class wines and – of course – a world-leading restaurant. It is Aspin’s brief to make the latter a reality.
“It’s the vision,” says Aspin. “It’s not just a 12-to-24-month vision. It will take a few years – not just for myself or my team but for every member of staff here.
“The investment being put into the property – it’s a lot of money. Singh is looking to build a world-wide brand in a collection of high-end hotels and with that comes opportunities and it’s exciting.”
The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français has already set the benchmark. It has been one of the top 50 restaurants in the world and the stage on which chef Margot Janse has launched her contemporary, African-inspired surprise tasting menu.
But the biggest hurdle for Aspin and his team are the shockwaves of cultural change rippling through the hotel from which the kitchen is not exempt. “The way ‘something has been done’ for the last 10 or 12 years no longer cuts it. Everyone has to adapt and quickly,” he says.
It is early days, and unfortunately Aspin is still cooking dishes more suited to the style of Chris O’Callaghan, former head chef at the three-AA-rosettes restaurant and now head chef at Castle Dairy in Kendal.
“When you first come to a new place, you have got to research,” Aspin says. “As a chef, the research has to be done in the building. How does it work? How do they cook? Run the business? I need to study that and figure out what needs changing straight away.
“It’s frustrating because I just want to get on with the job. I am a cook. We want to start putting our stamp on things. But the reality is we have rebuilt a team, we are designing a new kitchen and building up a supplier system. I am developing new dishes to support that,” he says.
Aspin has brought in former colleagues to the kitchen as part of his restructuring, including sous chef Iain Thomas from the Rocco Bar & Grill. “We have brought with us a style to the way we cook and the way we work,” Aspin says.
And what is that style? “There are chefs everywhere that are using chemicals, gels, foams, and so on. We don’t really do too much of that. So many chefs use different terms for the way they cook, but the reality is you just want to get the best out of the seasonal or local produce. So you could say my style is natural.”
His plan is to continue with a five-five-five-ratio menu which can react to what is available on the day, but with the addition of a tasting menu.
The Lake District and surrounding areas are fast becoming a high-end foody destination. Two-star Michelin chef, Simon Rogan owns the restaurants to visit and his progeny are also embarking on their own journeys. Kevin Tickle is at Forest Side in Grasmere, which has just won its first Michelin star, while Mark Birchall, former group executive chef northern restaurants for Rogan’s Umbel group, is opening his first restaurant in the 16th-century Moor Hall, near Ormskirk, West Lancashire.
“It’s a challenge where ever you go now,” says Aspin. “The thing is, though, a lot of the places that have just opened are going to be cooking what they have learnt from Rogan. That’s no disrespect; the same happened with Ramsay. But we have to find our own identity and own beliefs, and that does not happen overnight. It will take us forever really: we will always be changing it or adding to it. It’s a long-term vision.”
Aspin has huge admiration for Rogan. “For me, he should be on a pedestal somewhere because he is unbelievable in what he does, from his own farm to his kitchen. Where he has bought L’Enclume from in the last decade is just unbelievable.”
But he is more ambivalent about Rogan’s role in popularising foraging. “Rogan is the king of foraging, so we can pick up a lot of stuff from him,” Aspin says.
“Foraging is brilliant, but some of it tastes rank. It’s great to be trendy and say, ‘Oh, I like foraged food, etc,’ but the truth is that a lot of it just tastes like grass. It’s pretty shit really. Do I go out foraging? No, Not really. I am from Manchester.”
The key, as always, is to pick the very best. “I have someone who does it for me. You can get some foraged produce that grows wild and you snip it off whenever you need it, but some of the producers can now cultivate them and take bits of the bitter flavour out of it and that’s good too.”
The rise of trends such as foraging has made the fixed seasonal menu somewhat archaic in Aspin’s view: “The reality now is that you can get a phone call: ‘Oh, I have got this or that.’ A forager will have just picked some hogwort and so you can literally say, ‘Let’s go for it.’ You can change a dish in a day but you need to have the background and the thought from some dishes you have done previously or eaten to then work on that dish straight away.”
And Aspin is a firm believer in British – and preferably local – produce. “I am passionate about British produce in general. You can’t live in Scotland and not fall in love with the shellfish, the langoustine and the lobster,” he says. “Here in the Lake District, the game is fantastic. I know a few suppliers, not only in Cumbria but also some in North Lancashire and Yorkshire. But if we find the best crab you can get is from Cornwall, that’s what we are going to go with.”
His advice to producers and suppliers, though, is to be honest. The market has changed, nobody really likes to specialise in one product now but to be masters of everything.
“Producers can’t treat this industry as just a 9-to-5 job. You have to really believe in what you want to sell. Chefs know they have to adapt, think and plan ahead due to the nature of the produce and that includes planning what might happen if the crops fail. This is Cumbria, who knows what will happen in January. Will it flood? Will it not? We don’t know.”
Aspin was 14 when he started working in kitchens. His first foray was in a hotel in Manchester before landing on his feet working for Paul Heathcote. He worked his way up in the kitchen, left Longridge, and worked the circuit before coming back to Longridge as head chef.
“The restaurant got the Michelin star,” he says. “Heathcote was not cooking then. He had his finger in many, many pies. A Michelin star is something you dream of, so when you get there, it’s great. But then when you move on you have got to try and recreate that and get that formula correct to try and achieve it again. And who knows what that formula is.
“If you don’t set yourself goals and targets you don’t achieve them,” he says. “Without dreaming, you don’t get anywhere do you?”
Aspin has a colourful work history, having worked for some of the top chefs in the business. Aside from Heathcote at Longridge, his CV includes spells for Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, London; Marco Pierre White at the three-Michelin-star Oak Room, London; Albert Roux at the Rocpool Reserve Hotel in Inverness; Nigel Haworth at the one-Michelin star Northcote, Blackburn; and Tom Clarke at the two-Michelin star L’Ortolan in Reading. And that’s before you mention stints at L’Escargot in Soho, Abstract in Inverness and a head chef role at the former Establishment in Manchester.
His last job as executive chef at the three-AA-rosette Rocco Bar & Grill saw him create dishes with an Italian twist using produce from the Scottish larder. It was a big sacrifice to move to Linthwaite House: Aspin’s family, his wife and two young girls aged 10 and 5 still live in St Andrews. His days off are spent driving the 500-mile round trip to be with them.
But he is adamant that, although he has worked with some amazing chefs and all have had an influence, it is not necessarily the big-name chefs who have left the biggest mark on him. “A lot of the time, it was not the Ramsays, Heathcotes or Marcos, but the people they have in their kitchen every day that inspired me the most,” he says.
“It’s these guys who are instilling their beliefs into you. That’s the truth. I will be doing the same with my staff here. We are a family. We are together 14 or 16 hours a day. I used to be really shouty. I mean, really shouty, but not now.
“Listen, though, if something is not right, it’s not right,” he adds. “That’s the pressure we are under.”
Aspin cooked Cartmel Valley Roe Deer, beetroot and pommery mustard tartare for Eatnorth.
His take on:
Matching food and wine
My wine knowledge is OK. You learn a bit on the job. It’s always nice to have a glass of wine after service, but, to be fair, it’s something that everyone should tap into and improve. Food and wine go together hand in hand and that’s part of the vision for the Leeu Collection, which has its own Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines collection.
“Understanding how to match drinks is similar to when a chef starts in a kitchen: certain things you can guarantee a young person won’t like, such as blue cheese and nearly every green vegetable, game, fish. They will like chicken and steak. It happens every time. But the longer they stay, the more they grow, and gradually their tastes change and they start eating and loving these things. It’s the same with wine. At work, its Red Bull all day, then coffee. In the pub, they will order pints of lager then move on to ordering botanicals or wine.”
“What is a celebrity chef these days? Ramsay was a celebrity chef 20 years ago, but he was the person everyone wanted to work for. Of course, he is a successful business man with many Michelin restaurants all over the world, but he is now a TV chef.
The thing is, there are some chefs out there who have been on telly but who everybody still aspires to be. These guys earned a reputation by standing in that kitchen, training a team and winning what they have got. Some of the other so called celebrity chefs achieved TV stardom, but what have they achieved in the kitchens? They might have a great restaurant business now, but is that because they have been on television? Maybe they had the right smile or right banter, so to speak… Pukka being one of them.
The problem is that a lot of kids coming out of college these days all want the money and better hours. They want the lifestyle they see chefs having on telly. The reality is, it’s a long hard push to get to move up. There’s so much to learn and you can’t just do it in two years.
That’s what’s great about my job, we learn every day. If you want to move forward you have got to push yourself and your team and to try and make something better, to continually look at how to improve something, that’s all we are trying to do.
And Master Chef?
I know quite a lot about MasterChef because MasterChef Professionals winner Jamie Scott was a sous chef of mine at Rocco, so I went through quite a lot with him. It’s been brilliant for him and he deserves everything he gets. But I think working in a business where someone has won MasterChef can create quite a few problems. I don’t mean personally, but it can be a way for the owner to make more money or for the winner to think he or she deserves more money than the business can afford. It can be many different things. A lot of politics are involved in that and you have to manage that correctly and try not to get involved. I personally have never entered. Some people are good at that; others just want to crack on.
I don’t want to be famous or on TV because I won a competition. If I wanted to be on TV to win a competition I would do Catchphrase: I quite like that. If I want to cook, I will go into my kitchen and cook and be focused. I know where I want to be.
The foody scene up north?
There’s a lot going on up north. It’s getting a bit of a revolution. It’s always been about London, the Watford gap and all that. But it doesn’t bother me. I would rather look out at Lake Windermere than a high-rise every day.
There is a different boiling pot in London. The hustle and bustle. Everything is intense. It’s alright when you are younger, but nah, not now.
The football teams are shit, too.
Go to comfort food?
I Love Indian and Thai food. Anything spicy with a nice cold beer.
St Andrews and surrounds:
The Peat Inn, a one-Michelin-star restaurant cooking modern cuisine based on classical techniques using Scottish seasonal ingredients.
The Newport Restaurant, owned by Jamie Scott.
The Tayberry, Adam Newth.